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George Raper was only 17 when he sailed for Australia with the First Fleet on board the Sirius in 1787. He carried with him a box of the newly-invented watercolour tablets, which cost him two month’s pay. He made such good use of his paints and his skill at observing and representing animals, birds and plants of Sydney Cove and Norfolk Island that Governor Hunter copied his paintings in his sketchbook Birds & Flowers of NSW.

When I decided to celebrate my birthday in the National Library of Australia, I wasn’t thinking of George Raper. I was planning to spend the morning with Ellis Rowan’s wonderful flower paintings. The day before I travelled to Canberra, I rang casually to ask if I could also see Raper’s painting of the Sydney rock orchid (Dendrobium speciosum).

“Oh no! ” they said. “His paintings are too important. Too fragile. Too unique”

“Well, maybe,” they said. “We’ll see what we can do.”

Two days later, I was absorbing Ellis Rowan’s painting of Sturt’s Desert Pea in the Manuscript Room. I had a case containing ten of her paintings on the table in front of me. Someone came up behind me and said “Are you Meg? Ten o’clock or two o’clock?”

And that was how I was offered ten minutes with George Raper.

I was overwhelmed to the point of unaccustomed and inexplicable tears at the thought of time with something so precious. Two guardians wheeled his large black case to the table and slid it off the trolley. Reverentially, they unclasped the lid and began, with four hands, to move the mounts to avoid buckle or bend. Through the cover sheet I could see the faintest tantalising outline of paintings that weren’t the orchid. However, I accepted that my ration was one.

And then, the guardians relented and lifted the veil on the Glossy Black Cockatoo. I was stunned by the brightness of the colours. I’d seen the cockatoo before, but in pallid digital form. The spears of the burrawang behind him gleamed dark green. The glimpse was brief, but special: Glossy Black Cockatoo is my online avatar.

No more glimpses were vouchsafed until we reached Dendrobium speciosum. The cover sheet was removed, the guardians stepped back  and I was sitting down in front of a a flower painted in Sydney Cove 220 years ago. I had ten precious minutes to breathe it in.

The digital version, used here with the permission of the National Library of Australia, had done nothing to prepare me for the original.

I felt the urgency of looking well. I began with the paper to settle my excitement. It was woven and cream, with slight spots of foxing and a mysterious pencil annotation Can – no. No one seems to know what this signifies.

Raper didn’t begin his painting with a background wash. His approach was business like: the plant and just the plant.

I began with the pseudobulb. It perches on the rock (or log), minute hairs protruding finely from the base. The bulb is rich pink and yellow with fine lines and the clearly marked criss-crossed casing for the leaves. The leaves form a deep bright green ribbed chalice with a rim of gold as they curve around the racemes. Little scrapes of paint escape from the outline of one of the leaves.

The artist manages the crowding of the creamy yellow flowers skilfully. Mostly they are in profile and on these his maroon spots are sometimes a bit slapdash and the flowers are contained by a slightly unsteady outline. But in the two blooms that look directly at the viewer the orchid characteristics are portrayed with detail and exactitude.

Once I had looked my fill, I began trying to imagine the young man in the sparse settlement of 1789, painting, with precision and grace, portraits of things new to him.  He is sitting with his paper on his knee, or a makeshift table, his precious watercolours beside him and his eyes scouring the specimen, just as my eyes are scouring his painting. Maybe my two first fleet ancestors notice him as they go about their convict business.

The guardians seem to have stretched my ten minutes, so I return to the painting and experiment with another way of looking. I begin at the bottom and breathe in what I see and then close my eyes to reproduce it for my memory. Slowly I move up the painting: the bulb, the leaves, the flower sprays.

I sense movement beyond my concentration and the guardians flank me again. The careful putting away begins: four hands, muted voices; the cover paper, the mount; the sliding. But there’s another treat. A faintly limned bird calls through its veil, the veil is lifted, and we have a brief glimpse of the Common bronzewing, richly coloured with hints of gold to catch the pigeon gleam, and in the background a xanthorrhea.

I stand watching every move, until the clasp on the black case is closed and it slides back onto the trolley.

For more information about George Raper

Linda Groom First Fleet Artist: George Raper’s Birds & Plants of Australia National Library of Australia 2009

The George Raper Collection

George Raper watercolours